The old saying that power corrupts has been verified by science. Not only that, it does your head in, as it were, cripples your brain and cuts you off from reality. Jerry Useem tells the story in Power Causes Brain Damage.
Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, conducted years of lab and field experiments.
- Subjects under the influence of power, he found in studies spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury—becoming more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view.
Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, found that power impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” which may be a cornerstone of empathy.
We tend to mimic other people when we are with them, which lights up sympathetic circuits that trigger the same feelings others are experiencing, thus providing a window into where they are coming from.
- Powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others,” Keltner says, which leads to what he calls an “empathy deficit.”
While it seems the mirroring response is anaesthetised rather than broken after long habituation, changing the pattern can be difficult if not impossible. Obhi ran a study where:
- subjects were told what mirroring was and asked to make a conscious effort to increase or decrease their response. “Our results,” he and his co-author, Katherine Naish, wrote, “showed no difference.” Effort didn’t help.
I have read elsewhere that people who get Botox to take the wrinkles out of their face become emotionally isolated and effectively disabled.
Perhaps an early salutary lesson may help, as in this case:
- PepsiCo CEO and Chairman Indra Nooyi sometimes tells the story of the day she got the news of her appointment to the company’s board, in 2001. She arrived home percolating in her own sense of importance and vitality, when her mother asked whether, before she delivered her “great news,” she would go out and get some milk. Fuming, Nooyi went out and got it. “Leave that damn crown in the garage” was her mother’s advice when she returned.
The point of the story, really, is that Nooyi tells it. It serves as a useful reminder about ordinary obligation and the need to stay grounded. Nooyi’s mother, in the story, serves as a “toe holder,” a term once used by the political adviser Louis Howe to describe his relationship with the four-term President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom Howe never stopped calling Franklin.
I have been told recently that professional people, lawyers and such, who don’t work in a hierarchical structure become used to getting their own way. My own belief is that if we have unequal power over others we are in a position of moral hazard.
Statistics were not given in the article, except where:
- participants to draw the letter E on their forehead for others to view—a task that requires seeing yourself from an observer’s vantage point. Those feeling powerful were three times more likely to draw the E the right way to themselves—and backwards to everyone else…
I think I could have failed that one.
No-one is suggesting that all people who have power suffer adverse effects on their brain. There will be exceptions, and I know that some companies have programs that are meant to keep their executives in touch with the real world of their customers, and some go beyond that by paying their employees to do charity work. Nevertheless the research says we have a problem, and the end of the article suggests that businesses “had shown next to no appetite for research on hubris. Business schools were not much better.”
Research in psychology keeps telling us that the brain is malleable, and both culture and social environment have much to do with how our brains develop. Patterns that solidify over several decades, however, I think are unlikely to shift without some kind of deeply existential experience.
Where existing institutions within society are failing the normal suggestion is that the state should intervene. I think there are no easy answers.